More than memories of war

17th August 2007 at 01:00
Education and travel are both said to broaden the mind, but it was pleasing to have a graphic reminder during this year's holiday.

We were fortunate enough to return to Vietnam, a country that claimed my heart on our first visit two years ago. This summer's experience added to the attraction.

As well as revisiting the fascinating capital, Hanoi, we spent time in the central region, at Hoi An, and took the opportunity to travel to Hue, thus seeing a large part of the countryside and many of the sites familiar from daily news reports in the Sixties.

The voices started when we flew into Da Nang, famous as the massive United States military airbase during the war but now reinventing itself as a commercial and tourist centre. The name of Hank Hayes suddenly returned to me, and I remembered his devil's advocate role in a general studies class debate on the Vietnam war and pictures he showed us of Da Nang.

In the streets of Hoi An, with its silk shops, the tones of Taffy Kitt, our biology teacher, rhapsodising over the skills of the silk worm, came back to me. On our long trip to Hue, my favourite geography teacher, Cliff Phillips, could have been sitting next to me: coastal erosion, hanging valleys, paddy fields, subsistence farming his lessons were all there in front of me, his words in my ears.

And everywhere and it is everywhere in Vietnam history, whether recent or ancient, was laid out before us, and the sardonic tones of my history teacher, Ray O'Connor, supplied the commentary.

I hadn't expected to take these ghosts from 40 years ago on my holiday, but good teaching obviously sticks.

Our hotel had been a US Marine billet during the war, and two silver-haired American guys relaxing by the pool admitted they had served there. They wouldn't talk about their experiences, but had both suffered the full veteran syndrome of mental health problems, marital discord and inability to forget. Now retired, they spend six months of every year in local villages, teaching English to Vietnamese children, on a voluntary basis.

One of them said wearily: "Therapy never worked, so I guessed teaching might help..."

Rest assured, as we face this new session, it certainly does.

Sean McPartlin

is depute head of St Margaret's Academy in Livingston

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